The spread and tweaking (?) of misinformation

by Eszter Hargittai on August 13, 2008

UPDATE (8/13/08 11:04am CST): Google’s cache of the original Information Age piece makes it clear that the report had been altered considerably without any indication of this. (See screen shot here in case link no longer works.) Take-away: Information Age made considerable changes to its piece without indicating this anywhere in the post. That seems problematic. [Thanks to Bigcitylib for finding the cached page.]

Have you heard?! Google removed cities in Georgia from Google Maps! Or so were the claims that started making rounds on the Interwebs yesterday so you may well have heard it. But did you believe it? This incident has been a fascinating example of how quickly some folks will believe and spread something without further reflection. To be fair, random tweets were not the only means by which this information started spreading, more established outlets posted about it as well (see some links below with additional context). Still, how likely was it that Google would do something like this?

When I saw the post about it on the social news site Reddit yesterday (a post supported enough by readers of that site to make it onto a top page), I clicked through to look at the map. While interesting to note that the amount of information on Georgia was much less than many other countries, looking around on Google Maps made it clear that some parts of the map are simply less detailed than others. I also thought about the assertion for a moment. It didn’t sound very plausible. While Google may do all sorts of things that annoy various constituencies, it has been quite consistent in not wanting to block information even when people’s preference is that it would do so suggesting the claims to be unlikely. (Yes, I’m fully aware of some blocking in some specific cases on search engine results pages depending on local laws across the globe. Those are not incidents of this type though.) Short wrap-up: the details from the maps hadn’t been removed, they were never there to begin with. Interestingly, that idea did not occur to the many folks who reposted the information.

Here is an additional intriguing aspect to all this that I came across as I was looking at sites while writing this blog post. Might one of the reports about the incident been updated without any indication of an edit to the original report? I’m not making any accusations (it would be pretty ironic to do so in this post in particular), I’ll just post what I have found and welcome feedback. This Foreign Policy blog post about the Google Maps Georgia depiction references this piece in Information Age about the incident as follows:

As if Georgia didn’t have enough to deal with, yesterday the country’s cities and transportation routes completely disappeared from Google Maps. Reportedly wanting to keep its cyber territory conflict-neutral, Google removed all of Georgia’s details from its maps, making the war-torn nation look like a ghostly white blob flanked by Russia and Turkey. Georgia, though, isn’t the only country going blank on Google: neighboring Armenia and Azerbaijan—who have their own ongoing terrorital dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh region—are coming up empty too.

An NYTimes Bits post also links to that IA piece. [UPDATE: Just to clarify so people don’t misunderstand, NYTimes Bits linked to this as an example of incorrect reports.] (So you can see what these sites looked like when I linked to them, I have posted screenshots of the FP post, IA piece and NYTimes Bits post.)

However, curiously, the IA piece doesn’t refer to tinkering with the maps, rather, it suggests that such reports were incorrect:

Meanwhile, reports that the company removed details of Georgian civil infrastructure from its Google Maps were inaccurate, it said today.

“We have never had local data for those countries and that is why local details such as landmarks and cities do not appear,” a company statement said.

But would writers at both the Foreign Policy blog and the NYTimes Bits blog have linked to this piece as a source for the tweaking if all it had stated was that the reports were inaccurate? Curious. I’m left wondering if an update had been made to the IA piece without any indication of it.

In the end, the ruckus about Georgia’s depiction on Google Maps was big enough that Google decided to respond with a post not only on its LatLong blog, but also the Official Google Blog (with about half a million feed subscribers).

{ 44 comments }

1

bigcitylib 08.13.08 at 3:35 pm

http://bigcitylib.blogspot.com/2008/08/claim-that-google-blanked-georgia-false.html#links

The cached IA story tells the tale: The Azerbaijan Press agency originated the false story. Another to add to your “suckered journalist” file.

2

bigcitylib 08.13.08 at 3:38 pm

3

Seth Finkelstein 08.13.08 at 3:48 pm

This might have been the ur-source:

http://en.apa.az/news.php?id=86587

“Data about Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia removed from Google Maps after military operations began in South Ossetia
[ 12 Aug 2008 12:12 ]
Baku. Zaur Nurmamadov – APA. Data about the countries of the South Caucasus have been removed from Google Maps online service. APA reports that the data were removed from the server after the military operations were launched in South Ossetia.

There are only blank maps of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia, data about the cities, settlements and highways have been removed.

Besides, CyberSecurity website reports that Russian websites are unavailable in the territory of Georgia. It is also reported that hackers attacked the websites of Georgian government agencies last week. “

4

Siva Vaidhyanathan 08.13.08 at 3:53 pm

5

Eszter Hargittai 08.13.08 at 3:58 pm

Seth, yes, I found that link, but that wasn’t the one linked by several of the other reports. The supposed story took on a life of its own rather quickly.

Bigcitylib, thanks for the cached link. I looked for one, but Google didn’t have one for me when I searched for it. Link to image here in case cache goes away.

And Bigcitylib, note that your accusation of the NYTimes is incorrect. They didn’t assume this story to be true, they linked to IA in the following context:

    But not all stories appear to be accurate. Several reports suggest that data from Georgia and the neighboring countries of Armenia and Azerbaijan has been stripped from Google Maps. One story says that “the relevant maps went blank as soon as fighting broke out,” according to the Azerbaijan Press Agency.
6

Eszter Hargittai 08.13.08 at 4:00 pm

Siva, I know it’s untrue, I linked to that Bits post. My post is not about how this is true, rather, how fascinating the reaction has been to the original reports. Additionally, I think it’s interesting that Information Age changed its story significantly without noting that it had made an update to the piece.

7

bigcitylib 08.13.08 at 4:02 pm

Fixed.

But I wonder if this was a bit of propaganda on the part of the Azerbaijanis, or whether they had just never noticed before how little information appeared on their local Googlemaps?

8

mollymooly 08.13.08 at 7:33 pm

My theory: someone in the West who had previously only used Google Maps for viewing well-covered Western regions decided to check out the topography behind the Ossetia news; couldn’t understand why the level of detail was so much lower; leaped to the wrong conclusion. Everybody loves a conspiracy.

9

novakant 08.13.08 at 8:09 pm

couldn’t understand why the level of detail was so much lower; leaped to the wrong conclusion.

What level of detail? When I look at the three countries in question on Google maps, all I get is white space, nothing, nada (in map view). So it seems to me the story is true after all.

10

W. Kiernan 08.13.08 at 8:24 pm

I looked at Georgia on Google Maps the other day (the 9th) and it was totally blank. Roads and pipelines ran up to the Russian or Turkish borders and stopped dead. Not even a little star for Tbilisi. Armenia and Azerbaijan were also totally blank. Just out of curiosity I panned over to Koream, and not just North Korea but all of South Korea were also blank. I just checked and it’s the same today.

However, I don’t think this is some kind of sinister censorship issue, because in Google Earth I see city names in Georgia as well as some pretty decent satellite imagery, all the way down to being able to pan along roads from Tskhinvali to Gori. You could zoom in far enough to easily count all the roofs in Tskhinvali, for example. Did you know that it’s only 18 miles between the two towns, and they are apparently connected by roads? The range of the artillery rockets fired by the GRAD missile trucks (the ones the Georgian Army used to surprise-attack Tskhinvali at the beginning of the current war) is about 12 to 20 miles.

11

lemuel pitkin 08.13.08 at 8:34 pm

someone in the West who had previously only used Google Maps for viewing well-covered Western regions decided to check out the topography behind the Ossetia news; couldn’t understand why the level of detail was so much lower; leaped to the wrong conclusion.

No, that can’t be right. The level of coverage is much higher for the post-Soviet central Asian Republics and lots of other “non-Western” places. On the other hand, there is also zero detail for both North and South Korea (and for Cyprus), which makes Google’s official explanation (“we simply weren’t satisfied with the map data we had available”) rather puzzling. They can’t find good geographic data on *South Korea*? Really?

12

novakant 08.13.08 at 8:44 pm

Alright, the same white space for Iceland and Argentina, but I am certain there were cities on the Georgian map when the conflict erupted, because I used Google maps to look up flashpoints like Tshinvali and Gori. I remember specifically looking up Vaziani military base east of Tbilisi were US and Georgian forces conducted a joint military exercise in July.

13

lemuel pitkin 08.13.08 at 8:57 pm

the same white space for Iceland and Argentina

Hm. I was playing with the theory that they left countries blank not due to lack of data, but where there were two (or more) conflicting sources of data for some part of the country — which would fit with Georgia, Armenia/Azerbaijan, North and South Korea, Cyprus and Argentina. But are there any territorial disputes involving Iceland?

14

Joshua Kim 08.13.08 at 9:11 pm

I remember seeing fairly detailed maps of major South Korean cities last year, including Seoul, Pusan, and Incheon.

15

c.l. ball 08.13.08 at 9:13 pm

Google Maps and Google Earth have satellite and terrain data available. This is really valuable for any military use. The trouble the “map” data, which labels the cities and roads is missing. This is what makes life tough for casual western observers, like myself.

16

lemuel pitkin 08.13.08 at 9:27 pm

Google Maps and Google Earth have satellite and terrain data available.

This would fit with my conflicting-data theory. Satellite images are one thing but what do you do where e.g. different national governments both claim an area and use different place names? Google would not want to seem to take sides by using one or the other set of names. Thus, the blank. The fact that Israel/Palestine are also blank in Google Maps lends pretty strong support to this theory.

The only mysetery is why Google doesn’t say this stright out, instead of using the borderline-misleading “weren’t satisfied with the data available” formulation.

So I think Ezster is at least half wrong here, and the folks “spreading something without reflection” are at least half right. Google *did* make a decision not to include geographic data for Georgia, and almost certainly did so for reasons relating to the conflict there. It’s just that the decision was made some time ago.

17

Eszter Hargittai 08.13.08 at 9:40 pm

That doesn’t make me half wrong in claiming that no changes occurred in the last few days in response to recent events. My point was that they don’t suddenly remove information of this sort in reaction to events. I don’t address the issue of initial coverage of information. I guess I can see how you might read some of my post that way, but that wasn’t the point of my post.

18

lemuel pitkin 08.13.08 at 9:43 pm

Here is a list of countries with the level of geographic data Google maps provides for each. While about half of the two dozen countries with no map tiles are tiny, mostly Pacific island nations for which it’s plausible that no such data exist, the rest all seem to be countries involved in major territorial disputes. Given this, I don’t think there’s any question that Google is removing geographic data from its maps to avoid appearing to take sides in political conflicts.

Ezster, do you think it’s possible that it is you who have leapt to an unjustified conclusion here, based on your preconception that Google would never suppress information in this way?

19

lemuel pitkin 08.13.08 at 9:46 pm

Cross-posted. OK, you are right and information Age is wrong on the specific point of timing. But that seems much less important than the larger claim that Google Maps suppresses data due to political considerations. readers of the Information Age piece would come away with the (correct) impression that this is true, while readers of your post would come away with the (incorrect) impression that it is false.

The fact that the explanation on the Google blog is clearly misleading also seems at least as worthy of comment, as the edits to the Information Age piece.

20

bigcitylib 08.13.08 at 9:51 pm

Two things:

Given that nothing happened in response to recent events, I’d still like to know whether, since the original story seems to have come from an Azerbaijani news source, was this a move in a propoganda war? Did the Azis exploit Western ignorance of Georgia and therefore Googlemap portrayals of Georgia?

Also, if the point is: SHOCK! news sources disappear their own mistakes! Then thats obvious. I’ve caught journalists/media outlets on shoddily reported facts on several occasions, and seen it happen on many others. The whole “bravely acknowledge your error” thing hardly ever happens. The false stuff is sent down the memory hole. Bye bye!

21

lemuel pitkin 08.13.08 at 10:08 pm

Seems like the most interesting thing to come out of this is the discovery that (1) Google suppresses map data in (certain) cases of territorial conflict and (2) Google has nowhere even acknowledged this policy, let alone explained or defended it.

That’s eomthing I genuinely did not know. And given how much we depend on Google for, it seems important. To me, anyway. How about to you, Eszter?

22

Eszter Hargittai 08.13.08 at 10:11 pm

LP, I definitely think it’s very interesting to observe how much people assume about Google and how much they depend on it. It’s always interesting to find new examples of it.

23

lemuel pitkin 08.13.08 at 10:19 pm

Good answer!

But do you still think that the blank for Georgia is simply an instance of “some parts of the map are simply less detailed than others”? Or have you changed your mind, and do you now think that it’s specifically because of the territorial disputes there?

Also, did you know that Google did not include any geographic details on Israel/Palestine, Cyprus, Korea, Argentina, and other countries where there data is clearly available, and where there are territorial disputes? Do you find this at all interesting?

And finally — come on now, can we all agree that the Google Blog post is frankly misleading?

24

Maria 08.13.08 at 10:39 pm

Lemuel, I’m from Argentina and I’d like to know exactly why you think there isn’t information from there. The main issues I can think of involve the border with Chile, but Chile is shown (which itself has issues with Bolivia), and so is – obviously – the border.

The Falklands/Malvinas issue should not detract from having detail on Buenos Aires, or the rest of the country for that matter.

25

lemuel pitkin 08.13.08 at 10:57 pm

Maria-

My theory — and, ok, I may be getting ahead of the evidence a little — is that where there is a significant territorial dispute, they suppress the map tiles for the entire country affected.

(God, I suddenly feel like I’m turning into a freeper. But the pattern is so clear!)

26

bigcitylib 08.13.08 at 10:59 pm

LP,

Paranoia will destroy ya.

27

Eszter Hargittai 08.13.08 at 11:49 pm

LP, did you know that Encyclopedia Britannica used to publish different versions in different parts of Latin America probably for the reasons you list?

I’m glad you found my post as an interesting jumping off point for reflecting on information availability.

28

bigcitylib 08.14.08 at 12:13 am

LP,

How do you explain the presence of material for

Iraq/Iran.
Afghanistan/Pakistan

Sorry, dude, it doesn’t work.

29

Righteous Bubba 08.14.08 at 1:00 am

As W. Kiernan pointed out above, Google Earth works just fine, with defined borders, links to current news articles, and so on. No conspiracy or evasions.

30

Miguel 08.14.08 at 1:07 am

I dated and remain friends with a producer for large market, local, TV news show. Just about weekly he would come home with stories about the other writers and producers finding a great story on a blog and not properly checking its source. When he would object he would usually get met with lectures about how mainstream media was scooped on the Trent Lott/Strom Thurmond affair and about how they had to be flexible and quick acting to survive.

That attitude fails to realize that most blogs get their information from mainstream media when the media keeps a personal blog as a source (or checks wikipedia) it creates a framework wherein the disemination of misinformation is easy and dangerous.

Journalists, even online journalists really must demand to get to the initial source of a story before running with it. They should have started with a call to Google who would have easily explained the absence or at least found archived photos of the maps that supposedly had all of the information.

I worry that the instant reciprocity between respected media outlets will one day be used against the public by a savvy leader.

31

Righteous Bubba 08.14.08 at 1:07 am

Google Earth works just fine

And boy, the YouTube links tied to location are pretty cool.

32

bicycle Hussein paladin 08.14.08 at 2:46 am

OT, but what disturbs me most about the coverage of this war is that I had not heard a peep about Georgia’s attacks on S Ossetia until Russia started attacking Georgia. I listen to NPR and read the Guardian regularly. That’s pretty disappointing for military action like that to be completely ignored (or so it seemed to me). Am I wrong about this? Did anyone hear about Georgia’s actions in S Ossetia from British or US news outlets before Russia started attacking Georgia?

33

cpareader 08.14.08 at 3:36 am

re @31, don’t be disturbed. the BBC world service I hear on a local NPR station was reporting on the Georgia invasion of S. Ossetia (and being anxious about it in the way of BBC reporters) several hours before Russia made a move on Georgia, even before Russian troops showed up in S. Ossetia. I don’t know where you live, but I live in California, and hear the BBC regularly in the middle of the night our time, about seven, or perhaps eight, depending on Daylight Savings Time, hours earlier than Greenwich Mean Time.

34

Tom T. 08.14.08 at 4:12 am

Lemuel, on that spreadsheet you linked to, I don’t see Georgia at all. Am I missing something?

Also, when I type “Georgia” into Google Maps, all it gives me is the US state. The only way I can get to the country is by searching for Armenia or some other neighboring nation. Is anyone else having this happen?

Mapquest has a listing for Georgia and limited road maps, but no satellite imagery.

35

novakant 08.14.08 at 5:55 am

On reflection I have to qualify my earlier point that the data on Georgia was available on Google maps, as I also used Google Earth to get data on the region and cannot remember for sure which depicted what. That said, I find it a bit odd that a statement of a company is taken at face value and considered as proof that definitely clears up the matter, while users who report otherwise are dismissed out of hand. Sure, the internet is full of conspiracy nuts, but it’s not as if companies always tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

36

Eszter Hargittai 08.14.08 at 1:39 pm

Novakant, I agree with you that one shouldn’t always just take a company’s statement at face value. However, given the particulars here, it doesn’t seem like it would be worth it for Google to lie and lose its reputation over this. It would be too easy for people to have proof of a more detailed map in the past. Plenty of people take screen shots of maps and such, chances are there would be such maps floating out there. Why risk the company’s reputation over this?

37

c.l. ball 08.14.08 at 2:09 pm

Does anyone know how Google obtains the data for their maps? Cyprus is blank but there is data for Somalia and Western Sahara, so territorial disputes don’t preclude mapping.

38

lemuel pitkin 08.14.08 at 2:53 pm

How do you explain the presence of material for

Iraq/Iran.
Afghanistan/Pakistan

Not to mention Kashmir, Tibet, etc.

Sorry, dude, it doesn’t work.

Yeah, I’ve sort of reached that conclusion myself.

39

engels 08.14.08 at 3:01 pm

40

MDP 08.14.08 at 5:34 pm

While Google may do all sorts of things that annoy various constituencies, it has been quite consistent in not wanting to block information even when people’s preference is that it would do so …

It looks like Google removed the blogger PrestoPundit from their index after he started writing “omg Obama’s dad was a socialist” posts. 270k hits for “PrestoPundit,” but none go directly to his site. Could that be caused by a technical glitch?

If you check Yahoo, the first hits for “PrestoPundit” and “Greg Ransom” naturally go directly to the guy’s blog.

41

Richard Zach 08.14.08 at 6:07 pm

I travelled to both Tblisi and Yerevan last year. While I won’t swear that Tblisi and Yerevan didn’t show up at least as dots on Google Maps, I do remember that I looked at both in GM (as I usually do, print maps of the hotel and surrounding areas before the trip etc) and was surprised to see that there was no detail in the maps at all.

42

Tom T. 08.14.08 at 7:18 pm

Re: 38. If you think that’s odd, consider: Areas 1-50 aren’t listed AT ALL!

43

OriGuy 08.14.08 at 7:32 pm

There is some information at multimap.com. The cities and towns in Georgia are shown, with at least some street information. The data comes from Microsoft VirtualEarth, which I suspect isn’t available to Google.
The data definitely isn’t as complete as for the UK, which is where multimap is based.

44

Scott 08.15.08 at 1:19 pm

Just compare the coverage of Microsoft Virtual Earth and Google Maps and you will find many differences in coverage.

c.l. ball, just look at the copyright in the and you will find out who the map suppliers are.

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